In 1849, California pioneer Catherine Haun wrote, “Although very tired of tent life many of us spent Thanksgiving and Christmas in our canvas houses. I do not remember ever having had happier holiday times. For Christmas we had grizzly bear steak for which we paid $2.50, one cabbage for $1.00 and oh horrors, some more dried apples! And for a Christmas present the Sacramento River rose very high and flooded the whole town!”
Now that’s a holiday to remember!
Celebrating Christmas wasn’t easy for those making their way in new territories, but upholding traditions was an important way of making these places feel like home. Often resources were limited and decorations consisted of whatever was handy—evergreen trimmings, berries, pictures clipped from magazines, popcorn garlands—and presents were often handmade, or ordered from catalogs, if mail service of that kind was available.
In Boise, Idaho, the community shared a tree in the 1860s and residents were invited to “communicate through it with their friends,” according to the Idaho Statesman. People could exchange gifts and there was a Christmas Eve party at the tree.
But what about those people who were truly in the wilderness on Christmas Day? Well, some of them couldn’t take time off from the important business of staying alive as this journal quote from fur trapper David Thompson attests: “Christmas and News Years day came and passed. We could not honor them, the occupations of every day demanded our attentions; and time passed on, employed in hunting for a livelihood.”
Lewis and Clark and spent several Christmases on the trail during their famous expedition. Christmas of 1804 was spent in Fort Mandan, North Dakota where the men were issued flour, dried apples and pepper to help celebrate the holiday. Clark wrote of this Christmas: “I was awakened before Day by a discharge of 3 platoons from the Party and the french, the men merrily Disposed, I give them all a little Taffia and permited 3 Cannon fired, at raising Our flag, Some men went out to hunt & the Others to Danceing and Continued untill 9 oClock P, M, when the frolick ended.”
In 1806, the expedition was stranded at Fort Clatsop on the Pacific Coast. This was more of a gift giving occasion, according to Clark: “Our Diner to day Consisted of pore Elk boiled, Spoilt fish & Some roots, a bad Christmass diner. I recved a presnt of Capt L. of a fleece hosrie Shirt Draws and Socks—, a pr. mockersons of Whitehouse a Small Indian basket of Gutherich, two Dozen white weazils tails of the Indian woman, & Some black root of the Indians before their departure.”
That “Indian Woman” was Sacagawea.
If you’re interested in learning more about Christmas in the Old West, check out Christmas in the Old West: A Historical Scrapbook, by Sam Travers. The information in this blog was adapted from that book.
Have a Wonderful Holiday Season and a Very Merry Christmas! I’ve loved spending 2017 with you, and look forward to 2018!